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The Other Steve Miller
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Sigur Rós’ Valtari a return to the band’s ambient sound

Sigur Rós is probably one of the most beloved art-rock bands of the last decade or so, and the distinction is wholly deserved. Its latest effort, Valtari, continues its already accomplished and beautiful discography with agility and delicacy. It’s romantic and complex, but also bluntly beautiful and sad. Like most of our favorite bands, each release culls strengths from its past, and improves on its compositions in an engaging and new way. Music listeners, familiar with the group or not, will not be disappointed. The songs are, as usual, lovely.

ValariaValtari is like the beginning of the pendulum swing of Sigur Rós’ sound: It leans a bit more on the ambient side of the group’s sonic spectrum, in contrast to 2008’s bombastic, lush, and operatic Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. The members of the group have executed this transition in the seemingly most graceful and tasteful fashion; the music is “ambient” in a way that doesn’t knock off “Svenf-g-englar,” (from the band’s debut) or recycle the signature sparseness of earlier Sigur Rós. It’s texturally tonal and light. While Takk…, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, and Ágætis Byrjun feel like a narrative, an ornate tale unraveled before your ears, most of Valtari evokes the dreamlike state of staring at an outdoor fire or listening to a beach. The famous climactic thrills of their earlier work are mostly eschewed to make way for rich, gorgeous textures and minimalist frameworks of kaleidoscopic drone.

Valtari still retains a few massively energetic highs; fans of earlier songs like “Glósóli” or “Olsen Olsen” will find the same type of drama exuded here, but less often, and the similar ideas are dressed up differently. “Varúð” is a collage of gorgeous electronic and organic tones with angelic vocals cascading into a cathartic swell as powerful as any moment I can remember in its music.

This album is dense. Every song contains understated intricacies that will keep the listener engrossed for a considerable amount of time. The experience only benefits from multiple listens. The brittle, clanking few last seconds of “Rembihnútur” exemplify the breadth of texture and production used so damned skillfully by the group. Valtari transcends the music-as-tapestry cliché.

Fjogur Piano” is a soft, delicate wanderer, and it’s my favorite of the new record. It sets stillness side by side with movement; it slowly collapses into an overtone-laden beautiful mess. The glittering piano intro suggests a peaceful descent, with rhythms that seem to give no answers to the blissfully meandering, gentle plunking keys.

People probably enjoy Sigur Rós in different ways; I usually prefer to listen to its music while alone, to leave the slowness undiffused, and have freedom to be introspective and almost reverential. Maybe I enjoy slowly, gently picking apart my thoughts or feelings while I do the same with the music. Maybe it’s that the music helps me deal with the reality my thoughts and self. Whatever the case, it’s comforting to know that it looks like there will be more and more music to uncover in the coming years.

Editor’s note: Charlie Ray is a good friend and longtime collaborator. He studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where he studies composition and production. He can be contacted at charles.ray89@gmail.com.